Black Catholics in antebellum Charleston: Part 1

CHARLESTON — Thanks to the Fundamental Constitutions of the 17th century, colonial South Carolina enjoyed the most tolerant religious policy in North America.

Jews, Huguenots, Quakers and other denominations were free to practice their faith. Catholics, however, were not welcome to do so, and African religious forms were suppressed. Not until 1790 did the new South Carolina constitution guarantee religious freedom for all, including slaves and Catholics. How blacks and whites openly practiced their Catholic faith is the theme of this article.  

Although American Catholic slaveholders were generally pro-slavery, Catholic clergy instructed both master and slaves in matters of faith and doctrine. The church offered the same sacraments and graces to all and required the same obedience from every believer.

Bishop John England, the first bishop of Charleston (1820-1842),  insisted on a policy of nondiscrimination and universal inclusion of all the faithful. He required the regular reception of sacraments by black as well as white members of the faith.

Bishop England was favorably impressed with the black Catholics of his diocese. He found them to be pious, knowledgeable in the Catholic faith, and active in developing distinctive modes of worship. For example, they gathered daily for prayers, singing and mutual support.

“They have great charity in assisting each other in time of sickness or distress not only with temporal aid, if it be required, but by spiritual reading, prayer, and consolation,” he wrote.

Concern for mutual spiritual welfare extended into the afterlife as well.  

“They are exceedingly attentive to have the funeral of an associate respectably attended, and not only to have the offices of the church performed, but to continue the charity of prayer for a considerable time after death, for the repose of the souls of their friends,” the bishop wrote.

When Bishop England made his parish visitations, he welcomed black Catholics. In Raleigh, N.C., in 1839 he conferred the sacrament of confirmation on 10 people and noted that one of them was a well-educated black man, “at present the only person of color belonging to this congregation.”  

Later that month in Halifax, the bishop confirmed a free woman of color and her four daughters. He was impressed that they had been well instructed by a local white Catholic.

If families did not live up to their religious obligations, Bishop England was quick to rebuke them. The congregation in Savannah earned his ire in 1840 when he discovered that parents, guardians, masters and mistresses had neglected to educate their children and slaves in the faith. St. Patrick Church in Charleston fared no better when he visited that parish. He complained of the “great neglect of those who had charge of the colored children, whose attendance was very irregular.”

Bishop Ignatius Reynolds succeeded Bishop England in 1844 and continued the policy of evangelization.

When Bishop Reynolds visited Jekyll Island in 1848, he noted that the slaves there had been well instructed in the faith and had their own, frequently-used chapel. A priest from Savannah said Mass at the Negro chapel when Bishop Reynolds confirmed 10 slaves. The bishop was impressed at the pious demeanor of the “colored brethren.”

By 1850, the diocese of Charleston had grown to include 26 churches with two more under construction, 60 missionary stations and 22 clergy. The diocese also operated six charitable institutions, three of which were devoted to serving the needs of black Catholics; seven temperance societies; two female academies; and St. John the Baptist Seminary in Charleston.  

The Catholic population in Charleston was increasing more rapidly than the population as a whole. While immigration from Catholic countries accounted for the growing number of white Catholics, a significant portion  of that increase came from black Catholics, both slave and free, who joined the church through baptism and conversion. Vigorous Catholic evangelization in the black community is credited for this increase.   

While most slaves practiced the religion of their owners, the baptismal rolls of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist revealed an unusual variation to this pattern. It was expected that Catholic slave owners would baptize their slaves in the church. What is unexpected is that the majority of slaves baptized at the Cathedral were owned by Protestants and Jews of modest means. The number of Catholic slaves in Charleston owned by non-Catholics indicates an unusual degree of religious tolerance as slaves were allowed to choose their own  denomination.  

An analysis of the Baptismal Register reveals a number of Charleston Catholics were free blacks. Some were modestly well off; some were even wealthy. For example, Lydia and James Green owned real and personal property worth $4,000 in 1859. Elizabeth Miller had property worth $1,200 and Cornelia St. Marc had property worth $1,950 in the same year. Adeline Lacomb owned a slave.  

Other free Catholics were more modest, such as John Lewis, who was a shoemaker; Benjamin Jackson was a teamster; Francis Lopez was a fisherman; John Francis was a hairdresser; and John Lambert was a carpenter.

Family groups of black Catholics appear throughout the records. The St. Marc, Spencer and Lewis families are listed. Also, members of the Castion, Lacomb, Francis, Boisden and Dean families appear in the baptismal rolls during the antebellum decades.  

It is likely that this group of black Catholics evangelized other blacks, possibly through one of the known black spiritual organizations.  

The fact that the number of black baptisms at the Cathedral in the 1840s exceeded those of whites indicates that this group of Catholics were important to the spiritual life of the Cathedral.

Black Catholics worshiped closely with white Catholics. They organized their own religious experience and celebrated the faith in a distinctive fashion.  

A group of black and white Catholics in 1837 formed the new parish of St. Patrick Church on the corner of St. Philip and Radcliffe streets. After Bishop England blessed the new edifice and preached a sermon, black parishioners remained to sing hymns and offer their own prayers for the occasion, celebrating the event “in their own way.”

At the Cathedral, blacks formed a catechism class held after Vespers which was devoted to black religious instruction. This evening service and instruction provided a unique opportunity for black Catholics to worship together outside of Mass. The black evangelical spirit may have been nurtured from these lessons.

In addition to participation in Mass and weekly Vespers and prayer service, blacks had their own charitable organizations such as the St. John’s Burial Society. Organized in 1848, this society was devoted to providing liturgically-correct Catholic funerals for black Catholics in the Neck area.  

The Francis Xavier Society, the St. Joseph’s Benevolent Society, and St. John’s Savings Institute were formed to meet the needs of the black Catholic community. Little evidence has been unearthed about these organizations, such as membership and records of charitable works, but further research may reveal more about their size and mission.

Blacks were a vital element in the Catholic life in Charleston before the Civil War. They developed mechanisms for maintaining their own identity in a white church. They formed benevolent, burial and mutual aid societies. They expressed worship in traditional Catholic rituals, but also in their own distinctive forms, on their own time and in their own fashion.

Krebsbach is the corporate librarian at Santee Cooper. She is researching and writing about the history of black Catholics in Charleston.